Fountain Therapeutics Inc., a California company working to create treatments for age-related diseases, said Khosla Ventures has led a $6 million series A-1 financing of the startup, with participation from Nan Fung Life Sciences, which earlier contributed $5 million to the round. The company, co-founded by academic aging researchers, said it will use proceeds to expand its senior leadership team, enhance its AI-based drug screening platform and carry candidates targeting the underlying mechanisms of aging through preclinical testing.
"There has been a tremendous amount of work over the past 20 years that's shown that aging itself is under biological control and can be regulated," Fountain CEO John Dimos told BioWorld. Building on those ideas, Fountain was created to pursue the idea that therapies that reverse or slow the cellular aging process can be developed to treat any of the large number of aging-associated diseases that people become more prone to experience as they become older, Dimos said.
The company's team is open-minded about what path it takes to developing new treatments, taking a "target-free" and “hypothesis-free," approach, Dimos said. It won't, for instance, necessarily be based on the idea of altering or improving mitochondrial function. Instead, the company is using a computer vision system to essentially look at cells taken from people and animals of different ages. By building large datasets based on those samples, its team has now arrived at a system by which it can predict the age of the source organism. The team can then screen small molecules and biologics looking for those that "confuse" the system, resulting in assessments that judge them to be younger than they really are.
Though age-guessing machine learning systems have been experimentally tested to judge the age of people from photos online, the idea has also found traction in other quarters of the biopharma space at companies such as Salt Lake City-based Recursion Pharmaceuticals Inc., which closed a $121 million series C round in July 2019.
In addition to its platform development work, Fountain has also developed animal models for disease modeling and preclinical testing to help it map those to potential indications. The new funding will help its 12-person team not only scale the platform to a point where it can test 10 times as many candidates as it can now but also move its leading preclinical hits into testing in those animal models. Within two to three years, the company could be in a position to file its first IND, Dimos said. Meanwhile, it will also focus on identifying a chief medical officer.
Though initially based in San Francisco and still operating there in part, Fountain is in the process of transitioning to the new Lilly Gateway Labs facility in South San Francisco, a set of private lab modules unveiled by Eli Lilly and Co. in December 2019.
Company co-founder Thomas Rando, a professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University, contributed a key element to aging research in the 2005 article, "Rejuvenation of aged progenitor cells by exposure to a young systemic environment," which was published in Nature on Feb. 17, 2005, and has since been cited 1,282 times, according to Web of Science. In it, Rando and his co-authors found that "heterochronic parabiosis restored the activation of Notch signaling as well as the proliferation and regenerative capacity of aged satellite cells."
In addition to serving as chairman of Fountain's board, Rando is the director of the Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging at Stanford and of the Rehabilitation Research and Development Center of Excellence at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System. His research focuses on understanding the biological signals that activate stem cells in response to injury or other environmental cues, particularly in the context of aging, according to the school, which in April announced that he had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Fountain's other co-founders are the long-time aging researchers Joseph Rodgers, now the company's director of biology, and Tom Cheung, an associate professor of life science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.